Its midnight. Youre alone in the office, doing the reports again because no one offered to help. You went home briefly to make dinner for your husband, your kids, and the cousin whos crashing with you until he can stop huffing paint and get a job. Now youre ready to cryor stab someone with a pen. Youre only trying to be a good employee, wife, mother, relative! My dear, you are also a martyr.
Actually, though, youre just playing the martyr. Its a role youve fallen into. And you dont have to stick with it; you simply need to change the script.
Often martyrs create and rehearse their parts in a dysfunctional pattern of interaction called the Karpman drama triangle (an idea that came from psychiatrist Stephenyou guessed itKarpman). The triangle involves three possible roles: victim, rescuer, and persecutor.
In healthy relationships, people share their feelings and respond accordingly. If I stepped on your foot, you could say, Youre stepping on my foot. Id apologize and move my foot. This is not how it goes down in a Karpman triangle.
Heres an example: Sandy is the only child of an alcoholic mother, Dolores. One day Dolores staggers onto Sandys foot, heedlessly causing pain because thats what persecutors do. Sandy says, Youre stepping on my foot! Now Dolores, racked with guilt, gin, and self-loathing, turns into the victim. I didnt mean to! she sobs. Cant you see Im trying? Then Sandy comes to the rescue: Im sorry, Mommy! How can I make you feel better? Suddenly, Dolores is off the hook, and Sandys convinced that if she can do enough to please her mother, shell be loved again. They keep this up for years.
Over time, Sandy learns that its not safe to express her feelings, and that people value her only when she does things for them. By the time she reaches adulthood, shes become a full-blown martyr, cleaning her mother-in-laws basement, sewing Halloween costumes at 3 a.m. Shes sweet on the outside, but inside shes a roiling mess, overwhelmed by work, stifled by her relationships, secretly mad at everyone. Sometimes her anger boils over, and she turns into a victim (Nobody appreciates me!) or a persecutor (You could offer to help, you jerk!). Then she feels guilty about those feelings and atones for them by doing something nice, and the cycle continues. Ultimately, clinical depression or stress-related illness may set in, and shell end up sacrificing her health or even her life.
But theres an alternative to this horror show: Stop acting and live authentically. Once you commit to trying, its surprisingly simple. I promise. Sit down when you have some uninterrupted time (say, while youre donating your weekly gallon of blood). Relax. Breathe. Now begin writing, stream of consciousness, about a few episodes when youve felt that twinge of self-sacrificing resentment. Just pour it all outand then read what youve written.
Do you see any patterns? Are you constantly swooping in to the rescue, making do with less than you need, or feeling abandoned because no ones noticed your suffering? Think about the rewards youve envisioned in your wildest martyred fantasies: appreciation, recognition, love. Have you ever gotten the payoff youve been longing for?
Now check your body. Hows your stomach? Does your head ache? Move on to your emotions. Are you sad, furious, afraid, all of the above? You may have a lot of rage, so be as patient with yourself as you pretend to be with others.
Once you know what youre feeling, tell at least one safe person. For martyrs, the best option is usually a therapist, who wont try to entangle you in another triangle. If you choose a friend or a family member, proceed with caution: Does she respond as a whiny victim (Im sorry Im such a disappointment!), an angry persecutor (What is this, an ambush?), or an icky-sticky rescuer (This is my fault! I failed you!)? Your martyr complex may rear up, and youll feel the urge to do more for someoneor ask for lessthan you want. Dont punish yourself. It takes time to break a pattern this strong.
When you finally find someone who doesnt say What about me? but Tell me more, you may flounder in the unfamiliar space of truth. Youll be tempted to filter the other persons response through your dysfunctional lens. She doesnt mean that. Im a disappointment. At this pointget ready, martyrsyou can cut right through this misery by saying exactly what youre thinking. As in, Im afraid you dont mean that, and that Im a disappointment. Then, really listen to the answer. If it seems kind and honest, with no hidden agenda, you may feel disoriented. Thats because youre finally stepping offstage. Keep going. Keep speaking up. What are you feeling? What do you want?
And some night, when the clock strikes 12, youll find yourself in the dark againsnoozing in bed. You told your coworkers you were swamped; some grumbled, but some pitched in. You asked your husband to help with dinner, and he did. Your cousin, who didnt appreciate your new authenticity, has stormed off to play the victim somewhere else. Oh well. Thats the price of taking off the martyrs mask and showing up in the real world as your true self. Stay the course, and your life will keep improving. Dramatically.
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.